As a hypochondriac, I don't typically read first-person medical nonfiction (or second-person, or third-person). I rarely pick up a memoir, and if I do, I invariably put it back down quickly. And I fervently stay away from books that feature exaggerated photographs of women floating dramatically on highly reflective pools of water. So, when I finally received my copy of Mary Jane Nealon's Beautiful Unbroken, I was skeptical, insofar as it complies with every one of my irrational offenses. I opened the book apprehensively, expecting to be at once repulsed by health care horrors and marginally disappointed by a sentimental storyline.
From the very first sentence, Beautiful Unbroken is not what I had feared. Yes, there are plenty of health care horrors, but to call this sentimental, or even slightly romanticized, would be like calling Requiem for a Dream an ecstatic saga about youth.
Nealon begins with: "As far back as I remember I wanted to be a nurse or a saint. I wanted to be heroic." Growing up in Jersey City, she read through the lives of the great nurses and caregivers of history, and, after watching her policeman father cut a neighbor down from a suicide attempt, she decides to care for people in spectacular ways. Becoming a flying nurse, Nealon travels the country, treating the seriously ill in chemotherapy and oncology wards. To overcome the stress she starts writing bits of poetry in her spare time. With the untimely death of her brother from cancer, Nealon seeks to escape the thought that she has abandoned him, while trying to replicate her love for him in the faces of other terminal boys.
A local poet and director of Program Development at Partnership Health Center, Nealon has two previous books of poems to her credit (certain lines from her second collection, Immaculate Fuel, made me an instant fan). She writes with great utility and the poet's disregard for the unnecessary. Episodically recalling past decades, she describes the huge numbers of ailing individuals she attended to, grand friendships and the whirlwind of short-term love affairs with various men in various locales ("Formula for love: be leaving town in three months", she sarcastically advises). Swept along from Savannah to New Mexico and back to the East Coast, Beautiful Unbroken hits again and again on the themes of leaving and returning, and how, at a particular point, these terms become interchangeable.
In 1987, everything in Nealon's world changed. As the AIDS epidemic exploded, she found herself plunged into a true heart of darkness, working in one of the first AIDS clinics in New York City. This job, combined with her later experience volunteering at an AIDS-decimated shelter in the Bowery, fill the most noteworthy passages of Beautiful Unbroken. One unforgettable incident has Nealon visiting the home of two HIV-positive brothers—who would die within the next few months—and observing the plight of their sorrowful mother. Even here, in the worst possible scenarios of Nealon's nursing career, the carefully rendered personalities of her patients and her sympathy with nearly everyone cuts through the gloom of the inevitable.
Nealon's prose bristles with little enlightenments that arise from coping daily with the emaciation of sufferers, to going on short hiatuses to Fishers Island and the nudist colony of Esalen. But what is perhaps most extraordinary about Beautiful Unbroken is Nealon's ability to out-maneuver devastating personal calamities with eloquence and determination. After more tragedy culminates with her witnessing the crumbling away of the Twin Towers, she moves to Missoula. "I lost my parents, and then the towers fell," Nealon writes with a characteristic blend of humor and sadness, "and it was the same grief: too large for anything I had ever known, but not, as it turns out, too large for Montana in winter."
A much-deserved recipient of a 2010 Bakeless Prize, Beautiful Unbroken is alternately despairing, funny, gross and entirely hopeful. It's a perfectly titled memoir that contains the material for 10,000 stanzas of top-notch poetry. There could have been more than the slim 20 pages detailing Nealon's early years and nursing school days, but this is a quibble with an otherwise striking narrative. This is a riveting autobiography, a heartrending glimpse of living among the dying. I finished the book in about two sittings and had the urge to call the author and demand that she tell me more.